Trump's Public Charge Rule Is Blocked, For Now

US President Donald Trump waves from Air Force One after landing in Mountain View, California for fundraising events. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Federal judges in New York, California and Washington state have issued rulings today that for now block President Trump's so-called public charge rule, which was to take effect next Tuesday, Oct. 15.

The rule, officially released in August would greatly expand the definition of who is considered a "public charge" when requesting to be admitted permanently into the U.S., barring immigrants who use certain public services from obtaining green cards. For now, however, three preliminary injunctions prevent it from taking effect.

Numerous lawsuits had been filed by immigrant advocates and by several states, including New York, California and Washington. On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge George Daniels in New York issued a nationwide injunction prohibiting the government from implementing or enforcing the rule. A similar nationwide injunction was issued by a federal judge in Spokane, Washington.

In Oakland, U.S. District Court Judge Phyllis Hamilton issued a more limited injunction blocking the public charge rule in California, the District of Columbia, and three other states.

The Trump administration is expected to appeal these decisions, which were cheered by immigrant advocates.

In a statement, American Immigration Lawyers Association executive director Benjamin Johnson welcomed the court decisions, before the rule "started hitting families, businesses, and communities across the nation," Johnson wrote. "To quote Judge Hamilton, 'DHS's new definition of 'public charge' is likely to be outside the bounds of a reasonable interpretation of the statute.'"

Until now, the definition of a public charge for admissibility purposes has been limited to those who receive public cash assistance, or individuals who have been institutionalized over the long term at the government's expense. If the administration's new rule were to take effect, it would expand that definition to take into consideration the use of public benefits such as food assistance, housing assistance, and non-emergency medical aid.

The new rule would make it harder for immigrants who apply for permanent legal status to obtain a green card if they've received such benefits, or if it's likely that they will use those benefits once in the U.S.

Several advocacy groups, including Asian Americans Advancing Justice, were among those requesting preliminary injunctions in a hearing last week in Oakland. The City and County of San Francisco, along with Santa Clara County, filed another request, and Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed the third on behalf of the State of California.

Opponents of Trump's public charge rule say that in the past year, just the discussion of the rule has had a broad chilling effect, leading to confusion among immigrants about whether they should seek medical or food assistance.

FEAR AND CONFUSION

According to the rule's opponents, even those who would not have been affected by the rule have dropped or considered dropping out of public health or other programs, fearful of jeopardizing their immigration status or that of a relative.

"A lot of people are not making their health clinic appointments, and calling community organizations and asking for help in disenrolling," said Minju Cho, a lawyer for AAAJ in Los Angeles.

A recent LAist investigation found a drop in the number of Californians enrolled in public health and nutrition benefits when Trump's public charge rule was being publicly discussed in 2018 and 2019.

But observers said it's difficult to say whether most people who've left public benefit rolls have done so out of fear of running afoul of the public charge rule or for other reasons, like more money in their pocketbooks. So far, what's left is anecdotal evidence.

"Just the other day, one of our residents here, in our affordable senior housing, she came down and told me that she had disenrolled from Medi-Cal because she is sponsoring her son [for a green card]," said Jenny Seon, the immigrant rights project director at the Korean Resource Center in Los Angeles. "She's actually a U.S. citizen. I helped her re-enroll because I explained to her that it doesn't apply to her. And she was very convinced that it would affect her son's application."

For every person who comes forward, Seon added, there are others who do not.

"I feel very angry," she said. "It really is a scare to the immigrant community to get off of government benefits."

A study released two months ago by the California Budget & Policy Center found that when the federal government made changes to immigrant eligibility for public benefits decades ago, up to a third of those enrolled in such programs left the programs, regardless of whether the policy affected them. If similar disenrollment takes place after the public charge rule goes into effect, the study said, hundreds of thousands of Californians could be pushed into poverty.

"The public charge test is a wealth test," said Cho with AAAJ. "It is a test that says we only want certain, wealthy immigrants to come to the United States. This will have a disproportionate effect on non-white immigrants."

Cho said many of the immigrants she works with have come to the U.S. via family-based visas, including elders.

"Many people bring their parents or other elder relatives to the United States, and many of those immigrants don't speak English well or have significant assets," Cho said.

Trump administration officials have argued that the public charge rule is within the powers granted to the Executive branch by Congress.

ENFORCING IMMIGRATION LAW

"President Trump has once again delivered on his promise to the American people to enforce longstanding immigration law," said acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services director Ken Cuccinelli at an Aug. 12 briefing officially unveiling the public charge rule, according to a White House transcript.

There's a long history, Cuccinelli said, of U.S. law evaluating potential immigrants based on their ability to support themselves or their access to financial help from a friend, family member or other benefactor. Immigrants have had to submit sworn statements from U.S. residents that the applicant will be supported if he or she falls on hard times.

Cuccinelli said in August that the phrase "public charge" hadn't been properly defined by Congress or by federal regulations, so the administration created the rule.

He said the rule "encourages and ensures self-reliance and self-sufficiency for those seeking to come to, or to stay in the United States. It will also help promote immigrant success in the United States as they seek opportunity here."

APPEAL EXPECTED

The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment in light of the ruling.

Alvaro Huerta of the National Immigration Law Center, which litigated against the government in one of the California cases, said he expects the Trump administration to appeal all three rulings in the coming months.

"I think in order to get the rule to be implemented they're going to have to get all courts to understand or believe that they were in the right to be able to change the rules," said Huerta, who represented immigrant advocacy groups in the case heard before the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in Oakland.

Huerta said pending any federal response, "we want to make sure that people are using the benefits that will make their families healthy."

But that will be challenging because fears about public charge are so widespread, said Louise McCarthy, president and CEO of the Community Clinic Association of Los Angeles County.

McCarthy said she has heard accounts of people avoiding benefits that aren't even federally-funded, like a married couple who declined health care through the county's My Health LA program and parents who disenrolled their children from a state-funded insurance program.

"Honestly, this rule, even if it never takes effect, has already had an impact on people and their lives," McCarthy said.

The clinic association has been holding trainings for health care staffers who work with undocumented immigrants and advising them on how to dispel concerns around public charge.

UPDATES:

Oct. 15, 12:00 p.m.: This article was updated with a new section, including quotes from Louise McCarthy and Alvaro Huerta.

Oct. 11, 3:45 p.m.: This article was updated with news of court injunctions issued by federal judges today.

This article was originally published Oct. 1.

Leslie Berestein Rojas and Josie Huang contributed to this story.